Deeper Cut: Conan and the Shemites: Robert E. Howard and Antisemitism

The King of Kings gripped me. I thought it was powerful, though I think Joseph Schildrkraut ran away with the picture as Judas. And William Boyd, that fellow is the most human actor in the world. H.B. Warner lacked fire of course, but I don’t know who else could have done even as good as he did. Damn the Jews anyway.
—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, recd. 20 Oct 1927, CL 1.229

The King of Kings (1927) was a silent epic, the second part of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical trilogy, which began with The Ten Commandments (1923) and finished with The Sign of the Cross (1932), and tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, including his betrayal by Judas—and, in DeMille’s version, the high priest Caiaphas. The New Testament story has long been a focal point for Christian antisemitism, and Jewish newspapers and the Anti-Defamation League protested the film and its portrayal. They had every reason to: antisemitic violence around the world has never ceased, and the cinematic stirring of prejudices was feared to trigger pogroms. Many Jewish immigrants in the United States would have experienced violence against Jews such as the Kishinev massacre (1903), Lwów pogrom (1918) and Kyev Pogroms (1919) in the Russian empire.

Antisemitism prejudice and attendant discrimination had many forms and facets in the United States in the early 20th century: Christian anti-Judaism had persisted since antiquity in Western culture, but now merged with scientific racism, anti-immigrant Nativism, and ethnic stereotypes. World War I and the Russian Civil War led to parallel accusations of Jewish Bolshevism and Jewish capitalism. While not every American shared all of these prejudices, enough did.

Robert E. Howard was not an exception in this regard. Born in Texas in 1906, he was raised in a succession of small towns before the Howard family settled in Cross Plains, TX. While he often felt himself an outsider in this community, Howard’s views were informed by his environment and the popular media of the day. In that context, Howard’s reaction to The King of Kings is likely not unusual for his time and place—but only hints at the more substantial ways in which antisemitism found expression in his life and writings.

The best evidence of Howard’s antisemitism comes from his letters. However, Howard’s correspondence has to be approached with care: while they are first-hand documents, they are not diary entries, nor were they ever intended for publication, and present neither Howard’s inmost thoughts nor his views as he would have wished to preserve them for posterity. Each letter is to a specific individual, and the content and tone of the letter, right down to the antisemitic content, would have been influenced by Howard’s relationship with the person he was writing to and his purpose in sending the letter. It is important when reading these letters to keep this context in mind, and to judge the content of the letter not just by the written words, but the unspoken assumptions of who would read them and what Howard was trying to convey…and with the knowledge that Howard could, and did, change his tone and content when writing to close friends (like Tevis Clyde Smith or Harold Preece) versus pulp writing peers (like H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith).

It is important to remember that the quotes below are selected excerpts from the correspondence of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. They don’t reflect well on either man, but nor should they: antisemitism is ugly. They do not include every comment on Jews, nor even every antisemitic comment. These letters are quoted here to give an uncensored look at what Robert E. Howard wrote, and why he wrote it; to assist with the analysis of what his prejudices with regards to Jews were, and how it shaped his relationships and influenced his fiction.

Evidence of Antisemitism

Howard’s first-hand encounters with Jewish people in his life were few. He never noted any Jewish friends or correspondents in his letters, and Cross Plains does not appear to have had many Jewish residents—certainly not enough to support a synagogue, though the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish CommunitiesTexas notes small Jewish communities in nearby Abilene and Breckinridge during the period. In discussing his work history, Howard noted “I used to work in a Jewish dry-goods store.” (MF 1.120, cf. CL 2.199, 248) which was probably his closest direct association with anyone Jewish, although he no doubt had casual encounters. One such encounter was recounted in his letters:

There was a Jew sitting beside me who had bet five dollars with a big fireman that Rogers would stay the limit. Rogers stayed and the Jew won the bet, but the fight was harder on him than on Rogers. As Dula would drive Racehorse across the ring, slugging him savagely, the Jew would leap up and wave his arms wildly, shrieking for Rogers to clinch!—hold!—stall!—do anything! As the gong would end the round, the Jew would shriek that Rogers was saved by the gong and would fall limply back into his seat, in a state of collapse.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1932, MF 1.258

This may have been a typical Texas “tall tale”; Howard was prone to a degree of exaggeration and dramatization of events in his letters to Lovecraft, and the letters make very entertaining reading as a result—but a critical reader might wonder how much of this was true. Howard was fond of boxing matches and Kid Dula was one of his personal favorites, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt that he attended the fight. Whether there was a Jew—and whether they actually affected any such histrionics, or if this was all a bit of a tale for Lovecraft’s benefit, informed by Jewish stereotypes—is a bit of a question.

We can measure Howard’s antisemitic sentiments in some ways by looking at those of his peers: pulp writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth all made antisemitic comments in their letters as well. All four were white men, and though widely separated in different parts of the country, were of roughly similar generation (Lovecraft born in 1890 was the oldest, Derleth born in 1909 was the youngest), and their antisemitic comments all partake of the ambient antisemitism of the United States during their shared lifetime.

Howard’s references to Jews are mostly casual (often jocular) though sometimes bitter, dominated by stereotypes (usually of greed or cowardice, and with exaggerated phonetic Yiddish accents), and reserved for close friends. An example to illustrate this point:

Lizzen my children and you shall be told
Of the midnight ride of Mikey de Gold!
In feathers and tar he rode away
On a ten-foot rail at the break of day.
And Hebrews cheer when the tale is told
Of the thrilling ride of Mikey de Gold. 

Wotta life, wota life! Here is de low-down on Mikey de Gold: “As a Jew I know that anti-Jewish prejudice exists. I will fight it to the death. * I will stand up for my race, as I will for a Negro or Italian in like circumstances. And I refuse to run away, even if there were an escape in Palestine or Africa, as there certainly is not. America is our country, as much as anyone’s. We will plant ourselves here, not retreat to some mythical fatherland in the deserts of Palestine or Africa.”
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, c. Sep 1931, CL 2.244

The quote is in reference to the quasi-autobiographical novel Jews Without Money (1930) by Michael Gold (pseudonym of Irving Granvich); it is accompanied by a crude cartoon of Gold running away, with the caption “Mikey de Gold fighting to the death, according to the custom of his race” (ibid.) The bitter passages are rarer, but also telling, e.g.:

You can’t justify the existence of the Hebrew race to me. If I ever heard the Humoresque, it didn’t linger in my mind; but anyway, all the music in the world wouldn’t make me like them any better. They are swine as far as I am concerned; a lot of dirty scuts that didn’t have the nerve to come to America until the Irish had killed out the Indians and built the railroads. Then they came over and now they sit up on their bulbous rumps and blatantly announce that they own the damned country. Maybe they do; they’ll never own Ireland.
—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, recd. 20 Oct 1927, CL 1.340-341

Whether this is just a reflection of Howard in a black mood or putting on one for show is hard to judge by the context of the letter, but the concept of Jews as an outgroup, johnny-come-latelies to the United States after the frontier was settled would persist in Howard’s other letters. Both quotes illustrate the stereotypes that dominated Howard’s depiction of Jews as cowardly, greedy, and wealthy, both in his letters and his fiction.

As far as can be determined Howard expressed these prejudices only in private, among those who would not likely call him out. In this, his antisemitic statements can be compared to those of Clark Ashton Smith or August Derleth in their own letters: off-color jokes and pejoratives shared with those who would presumably have similar cultural background and values. The references to Jews in letters to Harold Preece, Tevis Clyde Smith, and other close friends ultimately don’t tell us much about Howard’s prejudices, except that he had them and that they followed some of the common stereotypes of the period. Howard’s “jokes” only land if the recipient and sender are both already aware of and implicitly agree with the common stereotypes about Jews.

By contrast, H. P. Lovecraft rarely if ever makes this kind of quip—more of his antisemitic statements are “serious” or presented as factual—and consequently, there is no “banter” or exchange of jokes about Jews in the Howard/Lovecraft letters. However, there is also nothing of the pseudoscientific, considered thoughts on Jews in Howard’s letters to his Texas friends: only Lovecraft was a springboard for those more in-depth conversations.

The Lovecraft Letters

The most telling and informative evidence of Howard’s thoughts on Jews comes from his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft. The subject matter of Howard’s letters is usually very restrained when writing to his friends, editors, and fellow pulpsters; but his letters to Lovecraft covered vast areas of discussion from history and anthropology to contemporary politics and current events, from pulp business to poetry, personal biography to their favorite foodstuffs. In Lovecraft, Howard found a correspondent different from any of the others we have a record of, whom he could engage with on a broad number of topics and in great depth. So while Howard could and did mention Jews in letters to others, he would never discuss them in such depth as he would in his letters to Lovecraft.

The earliest references to Jews in Lovecraft and Howard’s letters grew out of a discussion of anthropology and history:

One legend for instance, has the Gaels wandering into Egypt to serve as mercenaries, just at the time the Hebrews are leaving, and another legend has it that the Milesians were already well settled in the Egyptian barracks when the Jews arrived, and that it was malcontents among the Gaels who went into Goshan and stirred up the Hebrews to revolt.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, [9 Aug 1930], MF 1.35

Christianity had been treating the Old Testament as history for centuries, and during the Middle Ages this had led to national epics and legends that connected (or concocted) national myths with the Bible. The Lebor Gabála Érenn (popularly known in English as The Book of Invasions) begins with Genesis and traces the descent of the Irish from Noah’s son Japheth down to the Milesians, and from the more openly mythological material to the pagan and then Christian kings of Ireland. Howard, like other scholars, saw a grain of historical truth in the old legends and worked them into the anthropological narrative. By the same token, some lexicographers claimed that Irish Gaelic derived from Hebrew; Robert E. Howard discussed this with Lovecraft as well (MF 1.18), probably getting the idea from O’Reilly and O’Donovan’s Irish-English Dictionary.

The term “Semitic” originally referred to the closely related languages of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic, etc. in the 18th century; the term derived from “Shem,” the son of Noah from whom the Jews of the Old Testament were descended (Genesis 10-11). The term was extended through use to refer not just to the languages, but to the peoples who spoke those languages, their cultures and religions, so that by the early 20th century “Semites” was commonly understood to mean not just these languages, but also Jews, Arabs, Phoenicians, and other peoples that spoke Semitic languages. This was the sense in which Robert E. Howard used and understood the term as well:

As regards the Armenians, I am inclined to the theory that they represent a race whose original type was Semitic, who fell so completely under the dominion of their Aryan conquerors that they forgot their original Semitic language, and retained the later acquired speech through following centuries of re-Semitizing.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.43

Your remarks on the Etruscans interested me very much. I am sure you are right in believing them to be of a very composite type of Semite and Aryan. […] I was also interested in the theory of type-differences in the Semitic races, of which I had never heard before. It sounds very plausible, for there always seemed to me to be a basic difference between, say the Bedouin Arab and the Jew, even allowing for the long centuries of different environment and ways of living. That is an aspect of history full of dramatic possibilities; a clean cut divergence of type existing back to the very dawns of time. An ancient feud between the ancestors of the desert dweller and the fertile valley dweller, symbolized by Cain and Abel and by Esau and Jacob. The real basis of the Arab’s hatred for the Hebrew having its roots in primordial racial feud rather than religious differences of comparatively modern times. I must weave that thought into a story some day.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.47

While Howard never did write this particular story, these ideas that came out of his discussions with Lovecraft would find their expression in Howard’s later fiction. The combination of national epics and contemporary anthropology gave rise to racial narratives in which contemporary prejudices played out or found expression in historical (or prehistoric) episodes. While C. B. DeMille would tackle this with the New Testament narrative in The King of Kings, Howard would do this with the Shemites in the Hyborian Age.

The pair continued to correspond on this line, among others, and as they got into their topic gradually became more open and less guarded. Howard was one of the few correspondents who matched Lovecraft letter-for-letter, in terms of providing long, detailed, sometimes philosophical and sometimes argumentative responses in what became a long, wandering dispute…and this included discussion of Jews and other “Semitic” races. So for example there was this exchange, starting with Lovecraft:

There is likewise, as you suggest, room for much dramatic reflection in the heterogeneous personnel and history of the Semitic races. My own guess is that the Alpine-Semitic type—the queer-eyed, queer-featured type which we historically regard as Jewish—was originally confined to the fertile valleys and plains, and did not include the early Jews at all; these latter being that homogeneous with the Arabs, and thus chiefly Mediterranean. The Assyrians, as shewn in their sculptures, are extreme examples of this Alpine type; and the Phoenicians and Carthaginians appear to have belonged to it. When the nomadic Jews conquered the cities of Canaan, they probably found this type prevailing there—the difference being clearly shewn in cultural ways. The two elements were mutually antagonistic, but eventually amalgamation occurred—the established and numerically preponderant Canaanite stock of course engulfing the relatively small but ruling element of Mediterranean Hebrews. Thus the Jew of historic times is probably more of a mongrel Canaanite of Alpine ancestry than a descendant of the original Hebraic group. Moses—if he was indeed an historic character—would probably find Mohammed or Saladin more like himself in blood and features than he would find any of the prophets of the later Jewish line. It is obvious that in prehistoric times the Hebrews and Arabs were virtually one. When the Arabic Hyksos or Shepherd Kings conquered Egypt, they brought in myriads of Jews as friendly supporters—these latter becoming a slave-race when the reviving native-Egyptians expelled the Hyksos. It was this period of enslavement, I fancy, which first broke the spirit of the Jew, and gave him that readiness to submit to conquest which has made all his cultural heirs so peculiarly hateful to our unbroken and liberty-worshipping Western race-groups. The Arab of today is a better representative of the prehistoric “Abrahamic” Jew than any type historically known as Jewish. Altogether, there is great stuff in the Semitic peoples—a powerful mentality, and marvellous stamina in limited directions—but somehow they have never been able to coördinate themselves into any solid and enduring fabric comparable with the Aryan world as a whole.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 4 Oct 1930, MF 1.53-54

I am inclined to agree with you that the Assyrians and Phoenicians were of Alpine-Semitic stock, also about the Jews. It is evident that the present day Hebraic race has little in common with the original wandering, fighting type. I wonder if that Alpine type could have been the result of admixture with Turanian races? It is said that the Assyrian’s physiognomy was much like the present day Russian Jew’s, and we know that the Jews of Russia and Poland have a great deal of Mongoloid blood in them—descendents of those Turanian Khazars with whom numbers of Jews settled and mixed in the Middle Ages. […]  The Turanian has always, it seemed to me, been the man of action rather than the man of study and art. He has been, and still is, bold, adventuresome, capable and unsentimental, brutal and domineering; in creative genius he is infinitely inferior to the Semitic race.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.82

The “Khazar myth” is an antisemitic pseudohistorical theory that supposed many of the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Europe—particularly Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire—were actually Central Asian (“Mongoloid” or “Turanian” in late 19th/early 20th-century scientific racism terms) rather than “white,” and that their ancestors had been Khazars who had converted. This theory was used to justify discrimination against the Jews on a racial basis, and while Howard did not lean on it very heavily, these discussions influenced his thinking about Jews as a race, and to open up their history to speculation and re-writing. This kind of activity can also be seen in The King of Kings: C. B. DeMille could not write Jews out of the New Testament narrative, but he could characterize and portray the Jews in such a way to appeal to his interpretation of the story, and of the Jewish people.

While Lovecraft was not in any way shy about voicing his antisemitic views on the Jews of New York City, he had relatively few correspondents who could or did apparently share his views openly. In the case of Clark Ashton Smith, their mutual dealings with Jewish pulp publisher Hugo Gernsback opened up one avenue where they could express antisemitism to each other. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard bonded over their mutual interest in anthropology and anti-immigrant views. In response to a long digression on foreign immigration and the “melting pot” by Lovecraft (MF 1.76-79), Howard wrote in reply:

Once it was the highest honor to say: “I am an American.” It still is, because of the great history that lies behind the phrase; but now any Jew, Polack or Wop, spawned in some teeming ghetto and ignorant of or cynical toward American ideals, can strut and swagger and blatantly assert his Americanship and is accepted on the same status as a man whose people have been in the New World for three hundred years. […] Well—I can’t say that I’ve added anything to the greatness of the nation, but I at least come of a breed that helped build up the country, which is more than can be said today by any number of Hebraic-Slavic-Latins running around and calling themselves “Americans”.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Oct 1930, MF 1.88

These views were sadly not uncommon during the 1930s.

Not all of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard survive, so that there are gaps in the correspondence, but by Howard’s responses we know Lovecraft continued to reference Jews in New York on occasion, and this encouraged Howard to be either more outspoken in his own antisemitism, or more outspokenly antisemitic so as to appeal to his new correspondent:

Thanks very much for the statistics-paper. It seems in truth that only Americans are dying in New York and only Jews are being born. It seems certain that in a generation or so, New York will be a full fledged Hebrew city, 100% Yiddish. Yet I am less sorry to see this happen to New York than I am to note the inroads of the aliens into New England, though I’m sure that wops and Polacks are preferable to Jews. […]  The inevitable Jew infests the state in great numbers. You can hardly find a town of three thousand or more inhabitants that does not contain at least one Jew in business. And the Jew almost invariably has the country trade. It is a stock saying among rural Texans that if the Jew cannot sell his stuff at his price, he will sell it at yours. What they cannot seem to realize is that at whatever price he sells his shoddy junk, he is making a bigger profit than the legitimate merchant can make. No Aryan ever outwitted a Jew in business. I used to work in a Jewish drygoods store. Before each sale—and Jewish sales go on forever—I would “mark down” the goods according to his instructions. For instance, the regular retail price of a pair of trousers would be $5.00. I would mark in big numbers on the tag—$9.50, then draw a line through that and mark below, $5.50. Thus the duped customer, noting the marked out price and comparing it to the new price, would consider that he was getting a bargain, whereas he was in reality paying fifty cents more than the regular price of the garment. But you can’t make the average countryman believe that he’s not saving money and getting gorgeous bargains by trading with the Jews. But to return to the foreignization of the state. Houston, the largest city, has a vast alien population—Jews, Slavs, and Italians, the last drifting up from New Orleans. Dallas fairly swarms with Jews, in ever increasing numbers. In fact, the term, “Dallas Jews” is applied indiscriminately to inhabitants of the city by spiteful people. Dallas also has numbers of Greeks, Russians and Italians and quite a few Mexicans. San Antonio has a large population of Mexicans, twenty or thirty percent of the entire population, and the usual quota of Jews, Italians and Slavs. Of the remaining population, a large percent is Germanic. Fort Worth, thirty miles west of Dallas, and originally settled by cattlemen, is overwhelmingly American; the foreign percentage is very small. Waco, in central east Texas, has, in addition to a vast negro population, a steadily increasing foreign element. The Jew is there, but not many Italians, their place being taken by Poles, Bohemians, Czechs and Magyars. […] Austin, the capital city, set among picturesque hills, is mainly free from aliens, but Galveston and Corpus Christi swarm with Italians, South Americans, Cubans, Filipinos, Slavs, Jews—the usual population of sea-port towns. As for the Rio Grande Valley, the alien population is immense, some towns, I hear, being almost entirely composed of Latins and Jews, aside from their natural Mexican element.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1931,
MF 1.120-121

This is the kind of detailed look at antisemitic prejudice which we don’t see in Howard’s other letters, because Lovecraft was an outsider to Texas and was sympathetic to such anti-immigrant and antisemitic statements, and evinced an interest in Texas and Howard’s descriptions of its culture, geography, and population. Robert E. Howard was no doubt exaggerating a touch for effect (the Texas “tall tale” tradition in action). Lovecraft was less prone to exaggeration but also strove to provide his new friend with entertaining accounts of his own views on New York, and Howard connected this to Lovecraft’s fiction:

It’s a pity the Yids have taken New York. I imagine the mongrel population does present a bizarre aspect—I remember with what deep interest and absolute fascination I read your story, “He”, with its setting in the mysterious labyrinth of New York’s alleys and secret ways.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.149

“He” had been published in Weird Tales (Sep 1926), so this callback gives evidence to how keen Howard was on Lovecraft’s fiction; while the Texan had missed a few early issues of Weird Tales, he was a great admirer of Lovecraft’s fiction. The story was born out of Lovecraft’s New York period, and reflected his own disillusionment with the Big Apple—and while it doesn’t include any antisemitic commentary, Howard’s interest in New York no doubt encouraged Lovecraft to be more open about his prejudices. The two were encouraging one another, as correspondents often do, albeit on a very unpleasant subject. One of Lovecraft’s personal bugbears was his conviction that Jews controlled publishing in New York City:

But the Jews manage to get money and influence without losing a particle of their hard realism and unctuously offensive rattiness. They push brazenly ahead—in the intellectual and aesthetic as well as the practical field. Right now their control of the publishing field is alarming—houses like Knopf, Boni, Liveright, Greenberg, Viking, etc. etc. serving to give a distinctly Semitic angle to the whole matter of national manuscript-choice, and thus indirectly to national current literature and criticism.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, MF 1.134

Which prompted Howard to reply:

I agree with you that there is far too much Semitic control of publication and I view this fact with deep resentment. If American literature can’t somehow shake off the strangle-hold the Jews seem to have gotten on it, I believe it’s doomed. Not denying that the Semitic race is capable of producing fine work itself; but to each race its own literature. I don’t want to control the artistic expression of the Jews, and by God, I don’t want them to control and direct the expression of my race. You’re right about the haggling and noise accompanying commerce among the Orientals. In New Orleans all this noise and argument isn’t confined to the Semites alone.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.150

As with the Khazar myth, Lovecraft and Howard were both responding to a fallacious idea that a very small population of Jews were controlling the media marketplace—not very far removed from the antisemitic propaganda that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis spouted, though neither Lovecraft or Howard had heard of Hitler by this point. What is made clear from this passage is that Howard was responding to Lovecraft’s antisemitism. While Lovecraft had a broader correspondence with many different people with their own perspectives on these issues, as far as we know Howard only had Lovecraft. The two were not free from disagreement on some subjects, but when the conversation turned to Jews they tended to reinforce one another, echoing back the other’s prejudice.

Yet for all that, what they have discussed above are generally common prejudices, not views that are unique to either Lovecraft or Howard—but Howard would soon expand past common antisemitic tropes and offer his own individual views.

Robert E. Howard and the Jews of the Old Testament

I have always felt a deep interest in Israel in connection with Saul. Poor devil! A pitiful and heroic figure, set up as a figurehead because of his height and the spread of his shoulders, and evincing an expected desire of be king in more than name—a plain, straight-forward man, unversed in guile and subtlety, flanked and harassed by scheming priests, beleaguered by savage and powerful enemies, handicapped by a people too wary and backward in war—what wonder that he went mad toward the end? He was not fitted to cope with the mysteries of king-craft, and he had too much proud independence to dance a puppet on the string of the high priest—there he sealed his own doom. When he thwarted the snaky Samuel, he should have followed it up by cutting that crafty gentleman’s throat—but he dared not. The hounds of Life snapped ever at Saul’s heels; a streak of softness made him human but made him less a king. He dared too much, and having dared too much, he dared not enough. He was too intelligent to submit to Samuel’s dominance, but not intelligent enough to realize that submission was his only course unless he chose to take the ruthless course and fling the high priest to the vultures and jackals. Samuel had him in a stranglehold; not only did the high priest have the people behind him, but he played on Saul’s own fears and superstitions and in the end, ruined him and drove him to madness, defeat and death. The king found himself faced by opposition he could not beat down with his great sword—foes that he could not grasp with his hands. Life became a grappling with shadows, a plunging at blind, invisible bars. He saw the hissing head of the serpent beneath each mask of courtier, priest, concubine and general. They squirmed, venom-ladened beneath his feet, plotting his downfall; and he towered above them, yet must perforce bend an ear close to the dust, striving to translate their hisses. But for Samuel, vindictive, selfish and blindly shrewd as most priests are, Saul had risen to his full statue—as it was, he was a giant chained.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.160-161

One of the major influences on Robert E. Howard’s fiction is history. Many of his stories are essentially historical adventures, regardless of whether they possess some element of fantasy or the weird. Howard’s reading of history was always filtered through his own narrative: he admired the soldier, the warrior, the underdog that struggled. In this letter to Lovecraft, Howard uses the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, as history—and the narrative he constructs of Saul is very much evocative, but also familiar, right down to the metaphors. It is suggestive of King Kull, the Atlantean who ruled Valusia and kicked off sword & sorcery in “The Shadow Kingdom” (Weird Tales Aug 1929).

Whether or not Howard had Saul in mind when he wrote some of the Kull stories is unknown, but it’s notable that “The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales Dec 1932), the first story of Conan the Cimmerian began life as a Kull story (“By This Axe I Rule!”). King Conan, as he would appear in his first story, owes much to Kull—and if the Cimmerian is not quite as somber as the Atlantean, they both have a soft spot for one of the conspirators that seeks to unthrone them, and this too has a bit of a precursor in the Old Testament, in Howard’s reading:

David he knew was being primed for his throne—under his very feet they pointed the young adventurer for the crown. Yet I think he was loath to slay the usurper, because he felt a certain kinship with him—both were wild men of the hills and deserts, winning their way mainly by sheer force of arms, forced into the kingship to further the ends of a plotting priest-craft. To one man Saul could always turn—Abner, a soldier and a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word—too honorable, too idealistic for his own good. Saul and Abner were worth all that cringing treacherous race to which they belonged by some whim of chance. David was wiser than Saul and not so wise, caring less for the general good, much more for his own. He was the adventurer, the soldier of fortune, to the very end, whereas Saul had at least some of the instincts of true king-ship in his soul. David knew that he must follow the lines laid out for him by the priests and he was willing to do so. A poet, yes, but intensely practical. When he heard of the slaying of Saul and Jonathan, he composed a magnificent poem in their honor—but first he gave orders that the people of the Jews should practice with the bow! He knew that archery was necessary to defeat the Philistines, who were evidently more powerful in hand-to-hand fighting than the Israelites, and were skilled in arrow-play. He had a long memory and his enemies did not escape—not even Joab, who did more to win David’s kingdom for him than any other one man. I cannot think of Saul, David, Abner and Joab as Jews, not even as Arabs; to me they must always seem like Aryans, like myself. Saul, in particular, I always unconsciously visualize as a Saxon king, of those times when the invaders of Britain were just beginning to adopt the Christian religion.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.161

Howard’s inability to reconcile the epic history of the Israelites with his personal prejudices of contemporary Jews is in many ways the Texas Christian 1930s response to the Old Testament in a nutshell. Rather than reconsider his own prejudices, Howard recontextualized the Old Testament stories to center around his own chosen identity. This is different than the common antisemitic prejudices of the period, but it is very much in keeping with the euhemeristic approach to folklore and religion which Lovecraft and Howard had already played with in their stories before (see “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory”). 

The end of this particular line of thought was Howard’s description of Samson:

Another Hebrew who interests me is Samson, and this man I am firmly convinced was at least half Aryan. In the first place, he had red hair or bright yellow hair; I feel certain of this because of his name, and the legend concerning his locks. His name referred to the sun, always pertaining to redness, brightness, golden tinted, in any language; his strength lay in his hair; I connect his name with his hair. What more natural than a superstition attached to the red hair of a child born in a in a dark-haired race? And that angel in the field—well, in the old, old days of Ireland, there was a legend that the old gods had fled into the west, from which they occasionally emerged to bestow their favours on some lucky damsel. Many a wanderer from the western hills assumed the part of a god. I am convinced that the “angel” was a wandering, red-haired Aryan, and that Samson was his son. The strong lad’s characteristics were most certainly little like those of the race that claimed him. He wouldn’t even associate with his people. He feasted and reveled with the lordly Philistines, and his drinking, fighting and wenching sound like the chronicles of some lad from Wicklow or a wild boy from Cork. He was a great jester, a quality none too common in his supposed race, and in the end he displayed true Aryan recklessness and iron lust for vengeance. When, in history, did a true Semite deliberately kill himself to bring ruin to his enemies? The big boy was surely an Aryan.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.161-162

Samson, in Howard’s description, is not too far from many of his other Irish—or Cimmerian—heroes; Conan in “The Phoenix on the Sword” was described “with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth” and dealt death even when outnumbered and near death himself, with no thought of escape. Whether the Old Testament was a direct influence on the creation of Kull or Conan is hard to say, but it is undeniable that Howard’s particular view of history, and his prejudices regarding Jews, influenced his reading of the Old Testament. Howard would express a similar vision of the Old Testament hero in the poem “Samson’s Brooding,” which begins:

I will go down to Philistia,
I am sick of this conquered race,
Which curses my strength behind my back,
And fawns before my face.

Howard would write a number of such poems that take Old Testament characters as their subject, expressed through his own vision; these were mostly privately circulated to friends via letters, rather than for publication.

After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis’ antisemitic policies were rarely brought into discussion—although Howard made it very clear that he was no Nazi:

I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, [15 Jun 1933], MF 2.598

On assuming power, Hitler and the Nazis immediately began passing antisemitic legislation; yet Howard would die before the pogrom of Kristallnacht (9-10 Nov 1938) or before the mass murder of the Holocaust began in earnest or was widely known.

As it happens, this was largely the end of serious discussion of Jews in Howard’s letters to Lovecraft; while there are a number of brief references and snippets, he never again went into this depth on the subject. Lovecraft and Howard’s correspondence had shifted to their sprawling discussion of civilization vs. barbarism, the physical vs. the mental, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and Howard’s sweeping, epic histories of the Southwest and Lovecraft’s travels. Yet the Lovecraft-Howard correspondence is key to understanding how Jews and antisemitism find expression in Howard’s fiction.

Conan and the Shemites

Jewish characters are rare in Robert E. Howard’s fiction. Yet there are a few: Jacob, “a short, very fat Jew” who served as majordomo to Skol Abdhur in “The Blood of Belshazzar” (Oriental Stories Fall 1931) and one or more unnamed Jews in “The Shadow of the Vulture” (The Magic Carpet Magazine Jan 1934) noted only for their wealth and penchant for mercantilism; these are typical roles for secondary characters, especially in historical adventure stories where “Jew” is basically a stereotype with little nuance. Such stereotypes and stock characters were common tools in the pulp writer’s arsenal, and even H. P. Lovecraft (“The Descendant”) and Clark Ashton Smith (“The Parrot”) used them occasionally.

In a broader sense of “Semitic” characters, Howard used any number of Arabic characters in his historical adventures set during the Crusades or in the Middle East, including “Hawks Over Egypt” (unpublished during Howard’s lifetime) and “Hawks of Outremer” (Oriental Stories Spring 1931), both of which touch on the complicated ethnic and religious milieu of that place and period. A remnant of the Assyrians show up, perhaps rather surprisingly, in an unfinished Solomon Kane story, “The Children of Asshur,” where they are distinguished from both the indigenous Black Africans and the white European Solomon Kane.

The usage of “Semitic” characters, be they Jews, Arabs, or hypothetical older peoples such as the Assyrians or Phoenicians in historical stories could be taken as a matter of course; however it was difficult to have Jews and Muslims in the Hyborian Age. Howard’s solution is a callback to his discussions with H. P. Lovecraft about the hypothetical racial origins of the “Semitic races”:

Far to the south dreams the ancient mysterious kingdom of Stygia. On its eastern borders wander clans of nomadic savages, already known as the Sons of Shem. […]  To the south the Hyborians have founded the kingdom of Koth, on the borders of those pastoral countries known as the Lands of Shem, and the savages of those lands, partly through contact with the Hyborians, partly through contact with the Stygians who have ravaged them for centuries, are emerging from barbarism. […] Far to the south sleeps Stygia, untouched by foreign invasion, but the peoples of Shem have exchanged the Stygian yoke for the less galling one of Koth. The dusky masters have been driven south of the great river Styx, Nilus, or Nile, which, flowing north from the shadowy hinterlands, turns almost at right angles and flows almost due west through the pastoral meadowlands of Shem, to empty into the great sea. […] The Shemites are generally of medium height, though sometimes when mixed with Stygian blood, gigantic, broadly and strongly built, with hook noses, dark eyes and blue-black hair. The Stygians are tall and well made, dusky, straight-featured—at least the ruling classes are of that type. The lower classes are a down-trodden, mongrel horde, a mixture of negroid, Stygian, Shemitish, even Hyborian bloods. […] The ancient Sumerians had no connection with the western race. They were a mixed people, of Hyrkanian and Shemitish bloods, who were not taken with the conquerors in their retreat. Many tribes of Shem escaped that captivity, and from pure-blooded Shemites, or Shemites mixed with Hyborian or Nordic blood, were descended the Arabs, Israelites, and other straighter-featured Semites. The Canaanites, or Alpine Semites, traced their descent from Shemitish ancestors mixed with the Kushites settled among them by their Hyrkanian masters; the Elamites were a typical race of this type.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Hyborian Age” (1936)

The Shemites, as Howard conceived and depicted them, were not Jews; they were that hypothetical precursor race from which Jews and Arabs both emerged that he and Lovecraft had discussed in their letters. This was not presented as historical fact, even though it clearly derived from Howard’s readings of national mythos such as the Book of Invasions

The Hyborian world of Conan is best understood not as a self-contained and separate setting like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’ Narnia but as a fantasy setting where Howard would be free to write historical adventures without regard for the limitations of historical fiction—Conan the Cimmerian could thus adventure with Elizabethan buccaneers (“The Pool of the Black One”), rub shoulders with Afghani hillmen (“The People of the Black Circle”), face indigenous peoples on a colonialist frontier reminiscent of Texas (“Beyond the Black River”), explore strange forgotten cities (“Red Nails,” “Xuthal of the Dusk,” “The Queen of the Black Coast”), lead medieval European armies (“The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Hour of the Dragon”) all within the same setting and period. In this context, Howard did not require Jewish characters exactly—he never touched on Christianity or Judaism as religions in the Hyborian tales—but in tracing back the peoples of his present day, the narrative of Jews in the context of European and Biblical history rather demanded they be accounted for somehow; they would have been notable absence, otherwise.

If the Conan stories are considered in the order of their writing (as near as we can determine from Howard’s letters), Robert E. Howard conceived of Shem and the Shemites in the first Conan tale, but didn’t flesh out their history or culture—as Patrice Louinet notes in “Hyborian Genesis,” Howard did not write “The Hyborian Age” essay until after he wrote the first three Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the CImmerian 440). But they were there from the first: “The Phoenix on the Sword” mentions the “pastoral lands of Shem” and a “Shemitish thief.” Then in “The Tower of the Elephant” there is described “a Shemitish counterfeiter, with his hook nose and curled blue-black beard” who obviously derives from Jewish stereotypes—and that is really the heart of it: to present a people as a known quantity, familiar enough that readers could instantly understand the implied association, but distinct enough that Howard was not bound to any particular historical set of facts, as he might if he had set the tale in a familiar place and time-period.

The fact that the Shemites were not explicitly Jews works a bit into their favor: Howard did not feel obliged to make Shemites conform to every stereotype of Jews as he might have (and sometimes did, as in the case of Jacob in “The Blood of Belshazzar”). Indeed, the Shemites in “Black Colossus” and “A Witch Shall Be Born” are more reminiscent of the Assyrians portrayed in “The Children of Asshur,” with their courage, conical iron helmets, iron scale shirts, and mastery of archery. This would have been appropriate to Howard’s view of the Shemites as a race that was as yet “unbroken”—with their own kings and homeland—which opposed the common early 20th century narrative of Jews as a nation dispossessed.

As the Conan series wore on, the Shemites continued to develop as part of the background, mentioned here or there but seldom prominent on the page. The most important Shemite in the Conan series is Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast.” In this story, we can still see the echoes of Howard’s prejudices in lines like:

They sighted the coast of Shem—long rolling meadowlands with the white crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

Bêlit herself is described in sufficient detail to paint a picture; whatever prejudices Robert E. Howard had in his lifetime, he was well aware that women could be beautiful regardless of race—as evident from his sensual portrayal of Black women in stories like “The Vale of Lost Women.” While we don’t have any other Shemitish women for comparison, the description of Bêlit approaches fetishization:

Bêlit sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther. She came close to him, heedless of his great blade, dripping with blood of her warriors. Her supple thigh brushed against it, so close she came to the tall warrior. Her red lips parted as she stared up into his somber menacing eyes.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

Ethnicity informed character in Howard’s stories. While this did not mean that every character of a given nationality reacted exactly the same way, it was common for them to share certain attributes and instincts beyond skin or hair color—and this difference in attitudes and ways of thinking was often at the core of many conflicts, whether openly stated or not. There is no question of “whiteness” for Bêlit, but her undoing was in part due to her Shemitish heritage:

Bêlit’s eyes were like a woman’s in a trance. The Shemite soul finds a bright drunkenness in riches and material splendor, and the sight of this treasure might have shaken the soul of a sated emperor of Shushan.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

For all that her greed is ultimately her doom, Bêlit’s love for Conan was real—and stronger than death. Bêlit may have been, for Howard, one of the ultimate portrayals of a Shemite character…beautiful, courageous, deadly, faithful, but not without her human flaws.

An inversion of this type, beautiful on the outside but rotten to the core, can be seen in the character of Salome in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Salome is not explicitly a Shemite, and the Khaurani people are physically and culturally contrasted with the Shemite mercenaries. However, Salome bears many of the same physical attributes as Bêlit (black hair, pale skin, voluptuous), and Khauran worships “Shemite” gods such as Ishtar—suggesting a bit of Shemite cultural influence on Khauran, and possibly more than that. The name “Salome” is likely taken from the New Testament story of Salome, who had asked for the head of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew, implying beauty and sin. Beauty might seduce a barbarian, but while Conan loves Bêlit, he rejects Salome.

Robert E. Howard’s development of the Shemites—from his initial discussions with H. P. Lovecraft, the usage of Jewish and “Semitic” characters in his historical fiction, his interpretation of Old Testament stories through the heroic lens of his historical narratives, and finally to the creation of a fantasy setting which he could people with idealized races to fill the roles necessary to tell the adventures of Conan, are all grounded in Howard’s prejudices regarding Jews. They are also expressions of the cultural antisemitism of the period. As the correspondence with Lovecraft demonstrates, those common prejudices, the way the Bible was still read as history and influential on anthropology, linguistics, scientific racism, and in popular culture with works like The King of Kings buttressed and influenced Robert E. Howard’s own worldbuilding…because they also influenced the world he lived in.

Beyond Shem

Readers of Conan stories in the 1950s-1990s might remember other Shemites—notably in the story “Hawks Over Shem” which first appeared in Fantastic Universe (Oct 1955) and Tales of Conan (1955). This had begun as a non-Conan Robert E. Howard story titled “Hawks Over Egypt,” and was rewritten as a Conan story by L. Sprague de Camp. The last English reprint was in The Conan Chronicles, Vol. I (1989), though it had also been adapted for Marvel Comics and been translated into many other languages. Shem and Shemites have been expanded in further stories, in comic books and roleplaying games.

Even without Howard, there are Shemites. This is part of the legacy of Robert E. Howard’s antisemitism: the characters and ideas that he created persist long after his own death. His conception of the Shemites, rooted as they might be in discussions about anthropology with H. P. Lovecraft or a particular interpretation of the Old Testament through a pulp adventure story lens, continue to endure. Which means, especially if the writers following behind Howard aren’t careful, they can continue to propagate the antisemitic stereotypes that in part informed their creation.

Normally when we think of the legacy of Robert E. Howard, antisemitism doesn’t spring immediately to mind. Howard is noted primarily for his weird and fantasy fiction, the characters he created like Conan, Solomon Kane, and Kull that have gone on to star in comic book series and have been adapted into Hollywood films. Howard’s Jewish characters are so few, and in his relatively less-read stories, that they are easily overlooked. Unlike H. P. Lovecraft, Howard’s letters were rather late in getting published, and haven’t always been widely available; while his antisemitism has never been denied, it’s also not prominent enough to draw much attention away from the rest of his life and work.

That being said, it doesn’t take a Howard scholar to make the connection between Semites and Shemites. While the letters with Lovecraft that help trace the origin of this idea weren’t published until considerably later, “The Hyborian Age” essay published by the LANY cooperative in 1936 makes the connection explicit. Writers that came after Howard and writing Conan stories would have known—or at least they should have—what kind of ideological building blocks they were playing with. Just because Howard’s original conception of the Shemites might have been rooted in his 1930s cultural milieu and his personal interpretation of anthropology and antisemitism doesn’t mean that anyone writing after him had to follow suit. Writing a 1930s pulp story with racial stereotypes in the 1930s isn’t laudable, but might at least be understood as a product of the times; writing the same thing in the 1950s is not. This was a point that L. Sprague de Camp was specifically called out on by Charles D. Saunders in his 1975 essay “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature.”

The Hyborian Age isn’t over—in many ways it’s just beginning. Adaptations of Howard’s original stories continue to be made; in some countries the copyright on the original Conan stories has expired and the texts have moved into the public domain, and people are writing new stories; licensed fiction and novels surrounding the original Conan series and the games, films, and other products that have spun out of it are being written and published. It falls to the fans, writers, and scholars of today to interrogate Robert E. Howard’s life and work, to not promulgate antisemitism in fantasy just because it is easy or convenient.

Addenda: Solomon, Malachi, & Other Hebrew Names

As far as Hebrew names went, Robert E. Howard appeared to have no conspicuous prejudices—nor is this is suprising given that his father’s full name was Isaac Mordecai Howard. Biblical names were common: Dr. Solomon Chambers, an associate of Dr. Howard’s who provided medical services in nearby communities of Cross Cut and Burkett, was another example.

Robert E. Howard’s swashbuckling Puritan adventurer appears to have one, or possibly two names drawn from the Old Testament, and is the most notable such character in Howard’s corpus, which otherwise tends heavily toward Irish names for protagonists. In fact, Howard appears to have borrowed the name from a character in “Sir Piegan Passes” (Adventure, 10 Aug 1923) by W. C. Tuttle (see Todd Vick’s “What’s In A Name?: Discovering the Origin of Solomon Kane’s Name”).

W. C. Tuttle’s Solomon Kane is not explicitly Jewish, but may be read as coded Jewish by the stereotypes of the time and the pulp magazines: a greedy but shrewd assayer who did no honest work, but cheated others and traded to make his fortune. The story was popular enough to be adapted to film twice, as The Cheyenne Kid (1933) and The Fargo Kid (1940); both films rename and recast “Solomon Kane” to something less conspicuous.

While we don’t know Howard’s precise reason for re-using the name, his Solomon Kane isn’t coded as Jewish either. The Puritan background is enough to explain the first name, and no explicit connection is made between Kane and the Biblical figures in Howard’s first stories. Indeed, in a rewrite of “The Blue Flame of Vengeance,” Howard changed “Solomon Kane” to “Malachi Grim”—a trick he had tried on other characters such as Sailor Steve Costigan (Sailor Dennis Dorgan) and Conan of Cimmeria (Amra of Akbitania).

Much later in the series, Howard does forge a connection between his character and the Biblical Solomon in “The Footfalls Within” (Weird Tales Sep 1931), as it is suggested that Kane’s magic staff was once the possession of the Biblical king—who has gained over the centuries a great reputation as a magician. While direct links to the Bible were unusual in Howard’s writing, Biblical references were not unknown: “Black Canaan” (Weird Tales Jun 1936) being the foremost example.

Solomon Kane’s name shows how embedded Jewish names have become in Christian culture, from Elizabethan England to the American Bible Belt. Howard’s usage of the name is not antisemitic, any more than Joseph or John or Adam or Mary would be, but is intended to evoke historical and literary connections in the mind of the reader—and, of course, it sounds cool and distinctive.

Works Cited

CL1 The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard vol. 1 (2nd edition)

CL2 The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard vol. 2 (1st edition)

MF A Means to Freedom (2 vols.)

Thanks for my proofreaders Bob Freeman, Dierk Guenther, Leeman Kessler, and Jewish Horror Review for your feedback and suggestions. Any mistakes left are mine, not theirs.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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